"You haven't changed yet?"

"No. After you left, Shaun start­ed cry­ing." Nora sighed and looked away. "And then I start­ed cry­ing, and—"

"Aw, hon­ey... C'mere."

I pulled her close and wrapped my arms around them both. Nora snif­fled soft­ly against me and breathed a shaky sigh. Shaun hic­cuped and cooed, busi­ness as usu­al for him.

"Nathan, I know this whole place makes you uncom­fort­able. But...thank you. Thank you for tak­ing us here."

She must've seen it in my eyes; I'd reached the tip­ping point where my obses­sion with puz­zles exceeds its own usefulness.

I'd count­ed the num­ber of paces we'd run from the front of the house to the Vault plat­form, SWAG'ged the ele­va­tion to the entrance. I'd count­ed the sec­onds it'd tak­en to low­er us down as we watched down­town Boston explode in a bright flash to the south of us. I count­ed the num­ber of paces we'd walked into the Vault so far. We were under Sanc­tu­ary, now. Right under it, in fact. Just under the ground water sur­round­ing the devel­op­ment. That'll be our fresh water sup­ply, of course...or rea­son­ably fresh, anyway.

How far were we sup­posed to go down from here? At anoth­er 50 feet below this, we'll be at sea lev­el. We're still close enough to the coast where leaks and cor­ro­sion might be a prob­lem, not to men­tion what dam­age the bombs are doing to the topog­ra­phy. Con­cord could be beach-front prop­er­ty by the end of the day, for all we know. I tried not to think about this place filled with water. As if it didn't feel enough like a fish­bowl, already.

Anoth­er 90 feet or so below that, oxy­gen is tox­ic. They have to intro­duce heli­um to the air mix­ture. That means we all walk around with per­ma­nent­ly fun­ny voic­es, or every­one starts to seizure. Soon. With­in a cou­ple hours, in fact.

Where were the liv­ing quar­ters, the food stores, the waste exchange sys­tem, the trans­porta­tion to take us below? Every­thing seems way too small to sus­tain this many peo­ple for...well, indef­i­nite­ly, I guess. Any far­ther down from there, and things start to heat up in the earth quite a bit with­out a seri­ous­ly high-pow­ered heat sink, not to men­tion, this many bod­ies in close quar­ters will gen­er­ate quite a bit of heat, any­way. Did they take that into account?

After that I stopped spec­u­lat­ing. My mom always told me I read too many cheesy sci-fi com­ic books, so what do I know, any­way? Besides, I'm ter­ri­ble at math.

"What? Nah, I'm fine. Feel great, in fact." She pulled away and frowned up at me, skep­ti­cal­ly. "I mean it! Wait'll you get your Vault-suit on..."

I wag­gled my eye­brows at her sug­ges­tive­ly, and a dim but notice­able sparkle of amuse­ment flashed in her eyes.

"What's that sup­posed to mean?"

"It means this lit­tle cat­suit isn't just a sexy Hal­loween cos­tume, appar­ent­ly it's also a some kind of life-sup­port sys­tem. There's, uh...these bio-met­ric sen­sor...thin­gies? And they...stick...on...places." I leaned down to her ear and said, "Don't be jeal­ous, but I think we're dat­ing now."

Nora's eyes widened and she slapped a hand over her mouth when she barked out a sur­prise laugh. One of the sci­en­tists looked over at us sharply, trig­gered by the not ter­ri­bly appro­pri­ate response she had, giv­en cur­rent events. I flashed him a know­ing, toothy grin and a thumbs-up. The sci­en­tist gave me a strange look before scrib­bling some­thing on his clip­board, and Nora let out an immod­est snicker.

I picked her Vault-suit pack­age up from by her feet and dan­gled the bag from my fin­ger in a way that was sup­posed to be vague­ly tempt­ing. She eye­balled it cau­tious­ly and took it like I was hand­ing her one of Shaun's dirty dia­pers. "You're, uh...not inspir­ing a lot of con­fi­dence, here."

"Oh no, trust me," I told her. "Vault-tec real­ly knows how to make you feel S.P.E.C.I.A.L."

She pressed her lips togeth­er in a tight line try­ing to sup­press her laugh­ter, and failed pret­ty spec­tac­u­lar­ly. Good to know I could still earn Hus­band Points, even at the worst of times.

"Want me to take him?"

Nora's expres­sion changed to a sad pout; she hugged Shaun a lit­tle closer.

"Nora, I'm not going to drop him."

"No, I know. It's not that. I just...don't wan­na let go..."

I put my hand around her shoul­der and gave her a light squeeze. "Hon, it's okay. Look, I was exag­ger­at­ing about the suit—it's not that weird. But it is kind of involved. You're going to have to put him down, any­way. We'll be here when you get back, I promise. We're not gonna go any­where." I waved my hands at every­thing in gen­er­al. "We lit­er­al­ly CAN'T."

With a resolved sigh and nod, she passed the baby to me, still wrapped up like a bur­ri­to. I shift­ed him to my oth­er arm and caught her as she was walk­ing away. "Hey, hey. Come back here. You for­got something."

Before she could respond, I pre­emp­tive­ly leaned over and kissed her. Then I kissed her again. Then, in a moment of unapolo­getic self-indul­gence, I pulled her close with my free arm and kissed her deeply. I didn't care who was watch­ing us, didn't care about any­thing out­side the cir­cle of my arms. For a moment, I just let it all go except for my own lit­tle world of them.

"Thanks. I need­ed that," I whispered.

Nora touched my cheek with her cool hand and smiled soft­ly. "Me too." I watched her walk away, hug­ging the Vault-suit pack­age close to her.

I looked down at Shaun, his eyes as wide as din­ner plates. I chuckled.

"Sor­ry about that, kid­do. One of these days, you'll be just as grossed out by that as every oth­er child in his­to­ry before you. Right now, you don't seem to mind too much."

I'd half-expect­ed Shaun to start cry­ing the moment Nora had walked away, but he seemed to be respond­ing to my voice. Usu­al­ly, it was my hair that caught his atten­tion, but right now he was look­ing me in the eyes. So, I kept going.

"Solil­o­quies aren't my strong suit. I could tell you my speech I was gonna give tonight, but I think it's prob­a­bly a lit­tle obso­lete now. I wish I had some father­ly words of wis­dom for you, but this is a lit­tle beyond my pay-grade. But. We...fucked up pret­ty bad today, didn't we? Don't tell your mom I used that word."

Shaun gave me a big, slob­bery, tooth­less grin and my heart shattered.

"God, Shaun...I am so sor­ry. I am so sor­ry you have to pay for OUR fear and stu­pid­i­ty with YOUR future. We let you down, bud­dy. And I don't know what it's gonna take to get it back. Or if we even can, now. I wish I could tell you that it's all gonna be okay. But I don't know that it is. And I'd like to tell you that because you and your mom and me are all togeth­er, that's all that mat­ters. But it's not. Not by a long shot.

"But it's what we got right now, so, I guess we'll do our best to make this our home. And maybe one of these days, you'll have a lit­tle broth­er and/or sis­ter to help you out."

Con­nie and Patrick Sawyer down the street were expect­ing. I don't see either of them here. In fact, I don't see any oth­er chil­dren at all, except Shaun...

"I have a feel­ing you're gonna need it. Good thing your mama likes me..."

My throat caught. I looked away and swal­lowed hard. I see why Nora didn't want to let go.

Shaun's arm wig­gled free and he punched me right in the ster­num as if to remind me to pay atten­tion to him.

"Oof! You've done it now, lit­tle man. You can't fight me, pal." I took hold of his pink lit­tle hand and he curled his fin­gers around my index fin­ger. Hard to believe we all start out this small and fragile.

"I don't know what's gonna hap­pen, Shaun. But I know I'm your dad, and that's pret­ty darn awe­some. And I want to be the kind of dad to you that I didn't have. I nev­er want you to doubt that I love you. I promise I will always be will­ing to lis­ten and hear you out. If you need me, I'll be there. I will always be will­ing to embrace you and hold you in my arms, no mat­ter how old you are. I will always—always, always, always—love your mommy…even if it kin­da gross­es you out, sometimes."

I plant­ed a series of rapid-fire kiss­es on his tiny hand. "Eww, gross, kiss­ing, ewwwwwww!" Shaun gig­gled and gave a lit­tle flail. New par­ents are the only full-grown adults who get a free "Act Like a Dum­b­ass in Pub­lic" card. I'd used mine so much it was col­lect­ing interest.

"I swear to pro­tect you, Shaun. And I will nev­er, ever, ever fight you. I promise."

I wig­gled my fin­ger still cap­tured in his grip. "What? Want to do a gentleman's hand­shake on this?"

Shaun bur­bled. I took that as a yes.

"One, two, three—shake."

He yawned and attempt­ed to stuff my fin­ger in his mouth.

I laughed. "Oh. A spit hand­shake, then, huh? That's unbreak­able, you know. You dri­ve a hard bar­gain, lit­tle man..."

"What are you two talk­ing about?" said Nora at my shoulder.

"Oh, just guy-stuff. Three Stooges, cuff links, shav­ing—" I said turn­ing toward her.

"Snakes, snails, and pup­py dog tails?" she said, stand­ing hip­shot, one hand rest­ing on her waist.

"Some­thing like that. You look...wow."

Sug­ar and Spice and Every­thing Nice, if I'd been think­ing. I hadn't.

Nora frowned. "Mine is a lot more reveal­ing than yours."

I felt a dopey grin pull at the cor­ners of my mouth. I didn't even try and hide it. "I'm not complaining."

"Maybe you're not! I feel naked."

"Uh-huh. See sec­tion 1, para­graph A..."

Nora snort­ed. "You're cute when you try to speak legalese. I hope you didn't put that down as one of your skills or languages."

"Well, I mean. I'm not flu­ent. I can read it bet­ter than I can speak it. By the way, would the Pros­e­cu­tion please do a lit­tle twirl? I'd like to cross-examine."

"I think you need your head cross-exam­ined. Have them check your suit, while you're at it."

I cupped my hand over my mouth for a stage-whis­per, pre­tend­ing to speak into the col­lar of my suit. "Don't lis­ten to her, Vault-suit. You're per­fect the way you are."

"Mr. and Mrs. Rook. We need you to get into the decom­pres­sion pods now, please." One of Vault-tec's sci­en­tists scur­ried behind me, and I rolled my eyes so only Nora could see.

"Guess they're not gonna let us share," I said.

"I don't think the three of us would fit."

"S'pose not."

I gen­tly hand­ed the baby over to Nora and placed him in her arms. He snug­gled up to her chest and fell asleep instant­ly. I looked at the two of them and felt my heart squeeze.

Nora knows me well. She's right—I don't like this place. Every­thing about it feels like a trap, and I don't know if I'll ever be com­fort­able here. But we don't have any oth­er options, now. And when I look back on what she's sac­ri­ficed for me while I was off play­ing war games—her career; her inde­pen­dence; a peace of mind that no mil­i­tary spouse ever gets, espe­cial­ly dur­ing war time—and I look at what I've giv­en up for her, the bal­ance is def­i­nite­ly tipped in my favor. I can stand a few sleep­less nights if it helps her rest eas­i­er. I know there will be big­ger sac­ri­fices to come—for all of us—but it's a start.

"What is it, sweetie?"

Nora's voice pulled me from the thoughts. "Eh, just a lit­tle wool­gath­er­ing." I shrugged. "Did I...did I ever thank you?"

"For?"

"Every­thing. Being you. Mar­ry­ing me. Stay­ing with me. Hav­ing our son, and tak­ing care of him... And tak­ing care of me." I brushed a stray hair off her tem­ple and tucked it behind her ear. "You both mean every­thing to me. You know that, right?"

What else do I have now, if not them?

Nora nod­ded, blink­ing hard as her eyes glis­tened. I leaned for­ward and kissed her fore­head. Then I kissed Shaun's.

"I'll see you on the oth­er side," I said, wist­ful­ly. A lit­tle too much, actu­al­ly. It sound­ed less omi­nous in my head before I'd said it. "Lit­er­al­ly. I'll be right across the room over there. Watch­ing you out that lit­tle win­dow." I start­ed to back away. I made an "O" with my hands, pre­tend­ing to peer through it, and winked at her.

"Don't have too much fun with your Vault-suit," she sniped.

I grinned. "Oh, baby. I promise I'll be think­ing of you the whole time." I turned my hands into a heart over my chest. Nora rolled her eyes and shook her head. She smiled though, and I thought I caught a lit­tle bit of a blush, too.

I climbed into my pod and the clam-shell door closed auto­mat­i­cal­ly with a hiss. I watched Nora set­tle down with Shaun across from me, the baby still sleep­ing in her arms. She gave me one last good­bye, press­ing her hand to the por­tal win­dow as her door also closed.

What's the phrase? When one door clos­es, anoth­er opens? I nev­er real­ly under­stood it, but then I nev­er real­ly had much to apply it to. I guess time will tell what—if any—other oppor­tu­ni­ties will open up.

A blast of cool air filled my pod, par­a­lyz­ing my whole body with the chill. I felt myself begin to pan­ic before a sud­den calm­ness over­came me.

Then, for the sec­ond time that day, every­thing evap­o­rat­ed in a white flash...

...and took my world away.

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